Mission and Personhood

In this section, I shall focus on Balthasar's use of gender terms and of sexual difference with reference to one of the key concepts in his anthropology - personal mission. The idea that each person is given a unique "mission" by virtue of her incorporation into Christ lies behind many of Balthasar's most distinctive concerns - the importance of contemplative prayer, his interest in the saints as living "apologies" for Christianity, his rethinking of the tradition of the beatific vision and the communion of saints. It is one of the central anthropological presuppositions of the project of "theo-drama," and links that project to many of his more narrowly focused works (on what follows see VS. Harrison 1999a and 1999b).

For Balthasar the "mission" is in each case the specific way in which the person can become conformed to Christ. The discovery and acceptance of one's mission, of which we shall say more below, is an ongoing lived process of conversion in obedience. In temporal existence it involves the continuing "death" of the self-centered and sinful personality concomitant with growth into new life. Mission is not extrinsic to personal existence, as its goal or end-point; rather, it is the center out of which Christian life is lived. It is, however, an "ex-centric" center, given in Christ and hence not commensurable with any purely immanent project of "self-realization." A life lived in accordance with mission is a holy life, and holiness is best defined as the fulfillment of mission (see Balthasar 1988-98: III, 263-82).

At several points Balthasar explains the ontology of personal mission in terms of the creation of all things in Christ (Balthasar 1988-98: II, 200-3; Balthasar 1961: 21). Patristic and medieval thought, as Balthasar traces it, modified the Platonic doctrine of the divine Ideas, through reflection on the mediation of Christ, to develop an understanding of the parallel and God-given "ascent" of the creature towards fulfillment of its eternal Idea and the "descent" of the Idea that perfects and completes the creature. Earthly life in Christ is a continual receiving of one's mission and a continual being-drawn towards it. The parallel movements culminate, for Balthasar, in the participation of temporal creatures in the eternal divine life, which is both promise and reality in the resurrected body of Christ. The reality of (something analogous to) "novelty" and "surprise" in God's eternity through the mutual love and self-gift of the trinitarian persons is the reality in which the eternal life of creatures participates (Balthasar 1988-98: V 385-94; O'Hanlon 1990).

Why should a "queer theology" be interested in Balthasar's theology of personal mission? Mission defines and redefines what we are - as whole persons, body and soul - in Christ, and establishes in each case the possibility of a holy life. At the same time, it forces, or should force, a critical reassessment of whatever we take our "natural" or "given" forms of spiritual and bodily self-fulfillment to be. Personal mission, as Balthasar describes it, is in two important senses undecidable: since it is in each case unique, its contours cannot be determined in the abstract; and because of its relation to God's infinitely fruitful eternity it can never be regarded as "complete." We might see in the concept of mission a way of understanding same-sex relationships and the disruption of traditional gender roles as possible manifestations of Christian holiness. The fact that this is clearly not possible in Balthasar's own work, and the indications that it perhaps should be possible, provide the basis for what follows. The problem lies, I shall suggest, with Balthasar's use of "femininity" as the basis of the possibility of personal mission, as demonstrated most clearly in his Mariology.

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